Difficult Situations, Easy Decisions

by: Jack Johnson, Chief Advocacy Officer, Destinations International

A couple of weeks ago over the Christmas holiday I had to put down my eldest dog Ruud, a border collie who has been with me for almost 14 years. Of all the dogs I have had in my life, he was the most like me – observant, highly loyal, protective, a worrier, a bit of a loner, careful, a strong sense about how things should be and incredibly good looking. Well OK, maybe not that last one. Ruud could have made it to the dog show circuit and almost did before I took him in. Me? Not a chance.

I do not believe that I am one of those people who uses dogs as a substitute for humans, but they do have a role in the household as they have had for centuries.  There is a unique bond between dogs and humans. They watch, they raise alarms, and they help fill the space to assist in making a house a home. And they are a true companion.

When I told people about having to put Ruud down it almost always drew the same response – “That must have been a very hard decision.” I nod because I know they mean well, and I appreciate the sentiment. It was an emotional and sad time and I am not ashamed to admit involved quite a few tears shed. But, putting down my dog, putting down Ruud is one of the easiest decisions I have made.  This is because it has nothing to do with me, or anyone or anything else.  It is solely about the dog and the commitment I made the day I got him.  You see, before I bring a dog home, I make sure I understand that I am making a 15 year, give or take a year or two, commitment to this animal. And that commitment is made of two promises. First, that every day I will provide everything that dog needs to be a healthy and happy dog – food, water, and shelter; exercise, play and interaction; understanding of the dog’s needs and messages and training him to so that the dog understands mine.  And because Ruud was a border collie, understanding his special talents and giving him a job based on those. The second promise is that when the time comes and age or failure of health robs him of that ability to be that healthy, happy border collie, then I will put him down. It is all about him and I need to summon the strength to do something that is required. Something that is essential. It is a commitment.

In my melancholy state I found myself dwelling on the concept of difficult situations and easy decisions and I remembered my last year at Choose Chicago.  It was supposed to be our greatest year.  Bruce Rauner, our former board chair, and both a supporter and a friend was the new governor.  The Speaker of the House was my former employer, a mentor, a supporter, and someone I had direct access to.  The Senate President was someone I knew from my House staff days, had trained on a couple of policy issues and knew well enough to be able to say “John, you are being an ass.”  He was also my actual state senator, so I was a constituent. And finally, we had built working relationships with both Republican minority leaders and most of the Republican and Democratic legislators.  We were ready to move the final piece of our legislative agenda – a rewrite of the whole tourism promotion statute.  Then it all went bad.

The first sign of trouble was when the Governor’s budget staff scheduled a call with the McCormick Place Convention Center officials and myself on behalf of Choose Chicago.  On the phone was a former senate Republican staffer who I knew, respected, and considered a casual friend. The purpose of the call was to ask us to freeze spending from the taxes levied by the convention center authority in order to make it look as if the state had more fund available. The convention authority folks caved right away and said that they would certainly do their part.  Now they are a government entity, and the governor appoints their board chair and half the board, so I understand their reasons for going along with the request.  I did not agree but I understood.  But part of the tax revenues that they levied was money that went to Choose Chicago.  It was local tax money which is why they were pressuring us to go along with this as opposed to doing it themselves.  That was something I made sure of years before in a fight with the previous governor.

When it came to my turn to respond, I needed to decide -- be a team player to our good friend the governor in hopes of later rewards or push back. It was an easy decision.  I told them that no one wanted the governor to succeed more than us and we were willing to do anything we could, but – it was my understanding that they did not have authority over this money so I would need a letter from a legitimate government attorney stating that they had the power.  Otherwise, I could not in good consciousness bring this back to my people and recommend a yes answer.  The situation was difficult, even awkward, but the decision was easy. Don and I had made a commitment to protect Choose Chicago in the political and governmental arena.  It was a commitment not only to the people at Choose Chicago but to our mission on behalf of the city of Chicago. Two days later the governor’s staff announced that Choose Chicago would not be asked to take the cut.  It was a friend on the other end of that phone call, and I am sure she was angry, but I also know that in my shoes she would have done the same thing and she respected that.

The next round would be even more difficult.  Don Welsh has told this story often.  The governor had stressed that he wanted to expand funding for education, economic development, and in particular, destination promotion. But before doing that, he was going to risk everything on purging the state of public sector unions and what he saw as excessive spending by the Democrats.  When the Democrats passed a budget without enough revenue in an effort to force the Governor to either make draconian cuts or raise taxes, the Governor chose to veto the whole state budget (with the exception of the elementary and secondary education budget). What would result was a two year stand off when the state had no complete budget.  Just small portions approved here and there.  The result was a 40% reduction in Choose Chicago’s budget almost immediately.

Again, a difficult situation. This was not a battle that was aimed at us, we were just collateral damage. All the combatants were our allies, our friends.  Fighting back would be difficult, time consuming, exhausting, and had no certainty of success. We would be competing with everyone else in the state budget for attention and resources.  But the decision was easy. We would launch a grassroots campaign against the governor and the four legislative leaders - against our friends.  For months we pummeled them with letters and phone calls.  We met with as many as them as we could in person. We launched press events and took out ads in papers. It was difficult.  It was arduous. But Don and I had made a commitment to protect Choose Chicago. It was a commitment to the people at Choose Chicago and to our mission on behalf of the city of Chicago. It took five months, but the coalition we built got our funding back and that of every destination organization in the state restored – for two years! For contrast, the state universities took two years to get their money restored.

For over a year now we at Destinations International have spoken about the need to have a community/resident focus, that they are your ultimate customer, and they must value you. We have talked about communicating with them and your stakeholders in a way they understand, a lexicon based on values and emotion.  Achieving that is essential to moving away from just hotel tax funding to a broader based funding from both the usual and unusual suspects – a community benefit funding model.  And most recently we have spoken about building back in a way that focuses on building the essential first – focus on safety and resident sentiment - doing fewer things but doing them better. But in these times of scarce resources and many competitors for public support, there will be many difficult situations.  But if you make the commitment, the decisions that will need to be made will be easy.  Because it is about honoring your promise, your commitment and nothing else.

About the Author

Jack Johnson headshot
Jack Johnson
Chief Advocacy Officer
Destinations International
Jack manages the overall public policy operations at Destinations International including member advocacy education and training, development of destination tools and best practices, coalition work with peer organizations, industry research and related public affairs activities. Currently, his work around positioning destination organizations as a shared value in each of their communities and speaking with a new lexicon based on the emotion-driven by those values has made him one of the leading voices of the travel industry.